BY LESLIE MONTEIRO
(Photo credit: Gabby Ricciardi/Rutgers)
Any Jerseyite at the age of 46 and below never thought the day would come when Rutgers and Seton Hall would be dancing in March. Rutgers has been at the bottom of the NCAA for so long in basketball, and Seton Hall has made cameo appearances in March Madness.
Sunday served as a banner day for New Jersey. Rutgers and Seton Hall made the tournament. For good measure, Saint Peter’s joined the party, too.
Jersey Pride indeed!
It’s something to be celebrated because New Jersey serves as a tri-state area in the New York fanbase. It’s rare we celebrate a college basketball program making the NCAA Tournament, so this counts. Plus, Rutgers and Seton Hall are good, and both can go to the Sweet 16. Shoot, maybe St. Peter’s upset Kentucky.
It would be nice if New York City is represented, but St. John’s has been mediocre for so long that no one cares. For Pete’s sake, the Red Storm did not qualify for the NIT, and they could lose Mike Anderson as their head coach after reports circulated that he could be the head coach at Tulsa, his alma mater.
The tri-state area should embrace what the Jersey schools are doing. This could be a nice run these next few weeks. It’s better than nothing.
College basketball is great, but there’s nothing like it when the local teams do well. There’s real pride when a team in our backyard does well, especially for the alumnus and the students that attend those colleges. Your humble op-ed columnist looks forward to having some food and drinks at Bello’s out at Newark this weekend in rooting for Seton Hall and Rutgers to go as far as it can and celebrating with the fanbase. It’s just not the same if Duke wins it all here because the basketball program is not from here. It does not bring the community together like Rutgers and Seton Hall do.
Rutgers made the tournament on back-to-back years for the second time in its basketball history. The last time it happened was 1975 and 1976, It’s the type of history that is good and bad. For good, it shows the program that sixth-year head coach Steve Pikiell has now bear fruit after planting the seeds these last few years by recruiting well and having the kids play hard and beat some good Big Ten teams, even during the first few seasons. For bad, it shows how bad the program has been for a long time that it never participated in March Madness in consecutive years.
The Scarlet Knights now have a team that can be a perennial March Madness team with more recruits on the way and Pikiell just signing a well-deserved four-year extension. The program built a foundation of playing tenacious defense since Pikiell came over from Stony Brook. Expectations should be even higher at Piscataway for years to come, and that’s a great thing after decades of hopelessness.
For anyone worried about Rutgers making the tournament, that turned out to be misguided. There was no way the Knights would miss out. They won 18 games overall, good for fourth place in the Big Ten, and they won 12 conference games. They gave Purdue its first loss of the season, and they beat a peaking Wisconsin team at Madison. They have beaten good Big Ten teams this year. They had a good resume to be there just by beating the top teams in the Big Ten, including four ranked teams in a row.
The Iowa loss in the Big Ten Tournament wouldn’t have hurt since the Hawkeyes were peaking at the right time on Keegan Murray’s shooting. They just won the Big Ten Tournament, so Rutgers had to feel good about its chances of being in. Yes, Rutgers had hideous losses at the beginning of the season, but remember this was a team that was starting its season, so it took time for the Knights to peak.
So the Knights have to play in Dayton to start the tournament run. It could be worse. They can be playing in the NIT and likely not have their hearts in it.
After a year-long absence of making the tournament, Seton Hall is back after a 21-10 season. There were no worries about the Pirates being in. Their 21 wins and nonconference wins against Michigan, Texas and Rutgers were good enough for them to be in. This was a team that started off so good that fans wondered if Seton Hall can go as Elite Eight. The loss of Bryce Aiken changed everything after he had a concussion that still has him out and likely not having him play the rest of the way.
Former Seton Hall star Shaheen Holloway built something special at Saint Peter’s. Like Pikiell at Rutgers, he planted seeds these last few seasons by having his program be competitive. Now, the Peacocks reap the rewards by winning the MAAC Tournament and dancing in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. It was a process in the making. His teams improved every year, and everything clicked in the tournament for them to be in. He has gotten a lot out of his roster with a 10-man rotation by having them play defense. Somehow and someway, it worked. That’s coaching, and it should be good enough for him to coach a major program sooner rather than later.
Who knows how far either school can go? That’s the beauty of March. Anything can happen. Rutgers had opportunities to go to the Sweet 16 last year. The Scarlet Knights played Houston to the wire until they missed shots in the end that prevented them from going to the Sweet 16. Seton Hall would have likely been there if Aiken was healthy. Maybe Saint Peter’s pull off upset on Holloway’s coaching.
These kids get the opportunity of a lifetime of being a hero and a star. They dreamed of this for all their lives. That’s what March Madness is about. The journey and the moment.
For them to do this by playing in Jersey, it’s something to be proud of. We get to watch this all unfold.
It’s a sight to celebrate.